Row, Row, Rowing Their Boat to Silver at Nationals: SOU Crew Inaugural Year Is More Than A Strong Start
It truly was an underdog story, the stuff that Hollywood tries to script: The Southern Oregon University crew team, in their first real year of competition, not only kept pace with some of the east coast powerhouses, but snagged a silver medal at this year’s national championships in late May.
On the final weekend of May, two women’s boats from SOU crew—a novice four and a novice eight—traveled to its first national competition. (Any crew that has competed for less than one year is called “novice”; other crews are varsity.) Hosted at Lake Lanier, near Atlanta, where the 1996 Olympics were held, the venue was teaming with hundreds of rowers. SOU was the newest program there.
Over the years, there has been a ragtag boat of SOU college students here and there who travel for competitions around the state, but over the past several months, SOU rowers—a team now consisting of 40 or so rowers—has somewhat quietly been gaining skills and strength with nearly daily practices at nearby Emigrant Lake, and last weekend showed they can hold their own against programs like University of Texas, Ohio State and Washington State.
Two years ago, Rogue Rowing, the community program that has rowed on Emigrant Lake for the past two decades, hired Rick Brown to head up their program. Brown has an impressive pedigree—he competed at Bates College in Maine, a solid program that routinely leads the New England colleges in rowing; and has since barnstormed the rowing world with coaching gigs at top notch programs like Marin Rowing Association in California and with Three Rivers Rowing in Pittsburgh, organizations that combined have three times received the prestigious U.S. Rowing Club of the Year award. Brown also has coached the U.S. Rowing Men’s Junior National team for six years—and this coming summer will host a month long training program for junior nationals in Ashland. With Brown at the helm, Rogue Rowing has steadily been stacking up its competitive programs and starting last fall, launched SOU Crew.
“We started very late October and didn’t even think about racing last fall,” explained Brown. “We then picked up a bunch of new rowers in January. I hope it’s only the beginning of getting a lot of great, committed students who wanted to be competitive athletes.”
Yet, in spite of a strong first year, SOU Crew was very much at a disadvantage compared to its competition, most which boast decades long traditions and deep-pocketed support from alumni. For example, while many of the other schools arrived at the recent national championships with trailers stacked with multiple $30,000+ shells, SOU’s women raced in boats borrowed from other teams. John Gutrich, who is an Environmental Science and Policy faulty member, also helped out coaching this past term. A rower as an undergraduate himself at Purdue University, he was able to hook up the SOU Crew with shells from that team, while Brown was able to connect the rowers with housing from the mother of a girl he had coached in Pittsburgh. With many of the other programs flush with athletic department and alumni funding, certainly SOU was the pauper program, which perhaps only added to the determination.
On race day itself, the skies were overcast and drab. The SOU women’s novice four lined up against seven other teams—all which had been established more than a half-century, compared to SOU crew’s which is still counting its existence in months. From the start, UNH jumped to an early lead, but followed closely by a pack of three other boats—Penn State, Williams & Mary and SOU. Much like a swim meet, rowers race in lanes, with their boats side-by-side, and SOU battled stroke for stroke, but none were able to pull away from the other crews. It was a tense race.
Races in the springtime are called “sprints,” although unlike a Track & Field 100 or 200 meter which last less than a half-minute, these sprints are six or seven minutes of anaerobic punishment; like doing 250 consecutive power lifts, but with the control of a ballerina. To gain on other crews, squads often “up” their stroke rate—38 or 40 strokes each minute—but more strokes per minute also means depleting rowers of their energy faster. Battling for the silver medal, Penn State and Williams & Mary upped their rates in the final stretch, while SOU remained surprisingly calm, with a lower rating, but clearly stronger strokes; such calmness is usually a mark of a much more veteran team.
UNH crossed the finish line first, but the other three crews hammered the final 200 meters without one able to break away from the pack, and at the finish line, the announcer called out, “too close to call.” But, the final results showed SOU nudging out Williams & Mary by one second and Penn State by a whisker (oh, a tenth-of-a-second over the course of a seven minute race).
In SOU’s other race, the women’s novice eight did not qualify for the Grand Final, but rowed in the consolation heat—and in impressive fashion, handily finished first over UC-Santa Barbara and Florida.
For an interview with SOU coxswain Coleen Wheeler, check out RogueValleyMessenger.com